11:30 am Apr. 13, 2011
Toward the beginning of David Greenspan’s Go Back To Where You Are, you might think you’ve stumbled into a Terrence McNally play. The group of good-looking people milling about on the deck of a vacation house seem straight out of Lips Together, Teeth Apart or Love! Valour! Compassion!
Greenspan certainly knows his McNally (as an actor, he was impressive several seasons back in McNally’s Some Men). He takes a typical McNally set-up—a gathering of friends, all of whom are mourning lost loved ones—and almost immediately casts side any pretense of naturalism when one character says directly to the audience. “My name is Bernard. I’m one of the characters—obviously—in the play.”
Bernard is a playwright, and is telling us his own story. Actually, the story he is telling is that of Passalus, a little-known, long-forgotten actor from Ancient Greece who has suffered in purgatory for two millennia. God sends him back to Earth on a specific mission, warning him not to otherwise meddle in the lives of mortals. But Passalus can’t help himself, especially when he falls in love with the sad-eyed Bernard.
At this point you might be reminded of the plot of Xanadu, as was my theater companion. But Greenspan isn’t being silly (or not just silly—there are a few great absurd moments along the way). What he has in mind is an examination of life and death, and the transformative powers of the theater.
It’s a lot to pack into a play, especially one that runs barely 75 minutes, but Greenspan is nothing if not audacious. And although the play stumbles a bit in its last few minutes, it has you on the edge of your seat for more than an hour. You might have no idea where Greenspan is headed (I admit it lost me here and there), but it’s exhilarating to be along for the ride. His language is dazzling, moving from blasé cocktail party banter to the impassioned speeches of Greek drama in the blink of an eye.
Passalus (Greenspan, in a performance that simultaneously seems over the top and completely appropriate) doesn’t just fall for Bernard (Brian Hutchinson, radiating despair and hope). He is enamored with almost the whole crowd, finding their humanity intoxicating. Without their knowing it he urges them to perform small kindnesses for each other, things they’ve meant to do but have been too busy or distracted or inhibited to do. God, of course, isn’t happy.
The one person Passalus doesn’t care for is Bernard’s sister Claire (the excellent Lisa Banes), a well-known actress so insecure that she constantly derides the “little plays” written by her brother and sabotages the acting career of her friend Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry, hilarious from her first moments on stage). She also mostly ignores her son Wally (Michael Izquierdo), reeling from the death of his lover and uncertain about his career writing for television.
Passalus takes pity on Tom and Malcolm (Stephen Bogardus and Tim Hopper), a theatrical power couple whose personal relationship is falling apart. Bogardus, who often plays the good guy, is clearly delighted to be kind of a schmuck. Hopper alternates between a set designer and the creator of heaven and earth, a fact that gets the evening’s biggest laugh when Malcolm blurts out: “It’s not like I’m God.”
Rachel Hauck has fun with her deceptively simple set, a weather-beaten wooden deck that curves upward in the rear. When lighting designer Matt Frey gives it an eerie red glow, it is transformed into an amphitheater when the play veers into Greek tragedy. Theresa Squire’s costumes are appropriately understated.
Director Leigh Silverman is the perfect choice to helm this Playwrights Horizons production, having guided other theatrical flights of fancy like Lisa Kron’s Well. Silverman revels in the play’s artificiality, highlighting the moments when Greenspan’s characters make it clear they know they’re just characters. (“About time I started talking,” Tom complains, annoyed that Claire has hogged the spotlight.) But Silverman never forgets about the play’s tender moments, and more than once you may find yourself moved as Passalus, and several other characters, rediscover a life worth living.
Go Back To Where You Are is playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 west 42nd Street. Tickets are $55 and are available at 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
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